Recent efforts by a multi-faith coalition to campaign for family values drew criticism from gay and lesbian groups. The coalition, mostly made up of Muslims, Christians, Jews, Sikhs and Hindus, held a fundraising dinner at the Islamic Foundation of Toronto for school board candidates running in the November 13 elections.
The coalition came together after what they felt was an attempt by area school boards to enforce ideas and values upon their children contrary to their religious beliefs. The parents were angered over a December 15, 1999 meeting in which Toronto school board members discussed the school's new Anti-Homophobia and Sexual Orientation Policy. The policy calls for accommodation and acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle as normal.
"They were essentially telling our children that our religious beliefs were wrong and that your parents are ignorant, " said Abdur Rahman, coordinator of the Greater Toronto Area Parents Association (GTA Parents). What happened at the December meeting "was like a slap in our face." Hundreds of parents showed up at the meeting and made known their concerns, but the policy was adopted without any public consultation. "The fact that four hundred concerned parents representing various religious groups were unable to have their concerns taken into consideration was the defining moment for us."
Parents decided to support their own candidates for the twenty-two seats on the board. The recent fundraising dinner at the Islamic Foundation raised about $10,000, but organizers had hoped to raise about $70,000 more to support the 11 endorsed candidates. But despite the lack of finances, the coalition remains optimistic and has asked others to join in their cause. "We need the community to come forward to register, learn about the candidates, vote and encourage others to participate," says Jeewan Chanicka, a Muslim social worker running in the Scarborough Centre ward.
The endorsed candidates are Jeewan Chanicka (Scarborough Centre); Abdul Ingar (Don Valley West); Elizabeth Moyer (Scarborough Southwest); Ron McNaughton (Scarborough - Agincourt, Hassan Abtidon (Beaches - East York); Karma Badger (Scarborough East); Yakoob Khan (Parkdale High Park); Younus Dasoo (Broadview - Greenwood); Monowar Hossian (Etobicoke North); Emilsa Sealy (York West); and Iqbal Dhanju (Scarborough Rouge River) who is expected to declare his candidacy before the October 13th deadline.
United as they are around traditional family values, they are not focused on a single issue. They support greater accountability on the part of the board, more parental input and more involvement from the communities, says Abdul Inqar, a prominent community leader running in the Don Valley West district. GTA's efforts drew harsh criticism from gays and lesbians. Rachel Giese, a lesbian columnist for the Toronto Star, wrote a scathing article attacking GTA and the Toronto District Muslim Educational Assembly (TDMEA) for challenging the district's policies. The article dismissed the concerns of religious parents as baseless and rooted in fundamentalism and hatred. But group supporters say they are focused on equal accommodation within the system, not challenging the rights of other groups.
"We want equal accommodation of our religious beliefs and doctrines," says Roop Sharma, a lawyer and president of the Toronto-based Canada Hindu Organization Inc., and supporter of the campaign.
In the drive to secularize, it seems that our societies have forgotten that negation of religion and God and the imposition of this worldview on others is also a form of extremism. This was confirmed in a recent decision involving a school board ban on same-sex textbooks in British Columbia. The BC Court of Appeal upheld the ban and noted, "A religiously informed conscience should not be accorded any privilege, but neither should it be placed under a disability...(society) cannot make religious unbelief a condition of participation in the setting of the moral agenda." This is essentially what the coalition wishes to implement in the Toronto District School Board, the largest in the country and fourth largest in North America with 308,000 students, 560 schools and 18,000 teachers. In order to make this happen, the community and all those who support equality for all must come out and support the candidates endorsed by the coalition.
Reverend Wendell Gibbs, one of the speakers at the fundraiser, told a story that highlights the issue very well. The Pastor of Heron Park Baptist Church told the crowd about a boy who wrote a letter to God asking him why He did not help him with all the problems and trouble he was having in school. To this God responded, "Sorry son, I was not allowed into school."
Some in the Muslim community may feel that this kind of participation is un-Islamic. On the contrary, it is vital for our future generation. It is time for us to learn that moralizing on this issue and talking without considering the consequences will get us nowhere. It is important to remember that we live in a pluralistic, secular society and not a religious one.
To those who object to this kind of participation, I respond by saying that concerned parents should have done more sooner. They should have asserted their rights by having influence on how their tax dollars are being spent and how their kids are being taught. After all, not everyone can afford to send their kids to private religious schools.
It is time for the silent majority to make its voice heard. Why is it that everything is allowed in public schools except any mention of God or religion? It is not only our civic responsibility to participate in the process, but given the present situation, it is our obligation to make our voices heard when it comes to educating and shaping our future generations. Other communities can also learn from the courageous effort.
(The GTA is online at http://www.gtaparents.com. You can also reach them at their office in Toronto at (416) 328-7190).
(Faisal Kutty is a Toronto-based lawyer and writer. He is also a columnist for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, and a regular contributor to Iviews.com.)